POLLY A NEW-FASHIONED GIRL
BY L. T. MEADE
Author of "A World of Girls," "Daddy's Girl," "Light of the Morning," "Palace Beautiful," "A Girl in Ten Thousand," etc.
NEW YORK THE NEW YORK BOOK COMPANY 1910
"But if thou wilt be constant then, And faithful of thy word, I'll make thee glorious by my pen And famous by my sword. I'll serve thee in such noble ways Was never heard before: I'll crown and deck thee all with bays And love thee evermore."
PART I CHAPTER I. A GREAT MISFORTUNE. 1 CHAPTER II. ALL ABOUT THE FAMILY. 4 CHAPTER III. "BE BRAVE, DEAR." 6 CHAPTER IV. QUITE A NEW SORT OF SCHEME. 10 CHAPTER V. A SAFETY-VALVE. 13 CHAPTER VI. POLLY'S RAID. 16 CHAPTER VII. THE GROWN-UPS. 19 CHAPTER VIII. SHOULD THE STRANGERS COME? 24 CHAPTER IX. LIMITS. 28 CHAPTER X. INDIGESTION WEEK. 32 CHAPTER XI. A—WAS AN APPLE PIE. 36 CHAPTER XII. POTATOES—MINUS POINT. 42 CHAPTER XIII. IN THE ATTIC. 45 CHAPTER XIV. AUNT MARIA. 50 CHAPTER XV. PUNISHMENT. 55 CHAPTER XVI. DR. MAYBRIGHT versus SCORPION. 60 CHAPTER XVII. WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN? 64 CHAPTER XVIII. THE WIFE OF MICAH JONES. 68 CHAPTER XIX. DISTRESSED HEROINES. 73 CHAPTER XX. LIMITS. 75 CHAPTER XXI. THE HIGH MOUNTAINS. 78
PART II CHAPTER I. A COUPLE OF BARBARIANS. 82 CHAPTER II. A YOUNG QUEEN. 86 CHAPTER III. NOT LIKE OTHERS. 94 CHAPTER IV. A YOUNG AUSTRALIAN. 98 CHAPTER V. FORSAKEN. 103 CHAPTER VI. WITHOUT HER TREASURE. 108 CHAPTER VII. MAGGIE TO THE RESCUE. 113 CHAPTER VIII. THE HERMIT'S HUT. 117 CHAPTER IX. AN OLD SONG. 121 CHAPTER X. LOOKING AT HERSELF. 126 CHAPTER XI. THE WORTH OF A DIAMOND. 131 CHAPTER XII. RELICS AND A WELCOME. 135 CHAPTER XIII. VERY ROUGH WEATHER. 139 CHAPTER XIV. A NOVEL HIDING-PLACE. 144 CHAPTER XV. A DILEMMA. 149 CHAPTER XVI. FIREFLY. 151 CHAPTER XVII. TO THE RESCUE. 155 CHAPTER XVIII. OH, FIE! POLLY. 159 CHAPTER XIX. ONE YEAR AFTER. 165
POLLY: A NEW-FASHIONED GIRL.
A GREAT MISFORTUNE.
It was an intensely hot July day—not a cloud appeared in the high blue vault of the sky; the trees, the flowers, the grasses, were all motionless, for not even the gentlest zephyr of a breeze was abroad; the whole world seemed lapped in a sort of drowsy, hot, languorous slumber. Even the flowers bowed their heads a little weariedly, and the birds after a time ceased singing, and got into the coolest and most shady parts of the great forest trees. There they sat and talked to one another of the glorious weather, for they liked the heat, although it made them too lazy to sing.
It was an open plain of country, and although there were clumps of trees here and there, great clumps with cool shade under them, there were also acres and acres of common land on which the sun beat remorselessly. This land was covered with heather, not yet in flower, and with bracken, which was already putting on its autumn glory of yellow and red. Neither the bracken nor the heather minded the July heat, but the butterflies thought it a trifle uncomfortable, and made for the clumps of trees, and looked longingly and regretfully at what had been a noisy, babbling little brook, but was now a dry and stony channel, deserted even by the dragon-flies.
At the other side of the brook was a hedge, composed principally of wild roses and hawthorn bushes, and beyond the hedge was a wide dyke, and at the top of the dyke a wire paling, and beyond that again, a good-sized vegetable garden.
From the tops of the trees, had any one been energetic enough to climb up there, or had any bird been sufficiently endowed with curiosity to glance his bright eyes in that direction, might have been seen smoke, ascending straight up into the air, and proceeding from the kitchen chimneys of a square-built gray house.
The house was nearly covered with creepers, and had a trellis porch, sheltering and protecting its open hall-door. Pigeons were cooing near, and several dogs were lying flat out in the shade which the wide eaves of the house afforded. There was a flower garden in front, and a wide gravel sweep, and a tennis court and croquet lawn, and a rose arbor, and even a great, wide, cool-looking tent. But as far as human life was concerned the whole place looked absolutely deserted. The pigeons cooed languidly, and the dogs yapped and yawned, and made ferocious snaps at audacious and troublesome flies. But no one handled the tennis bats, nor took up the croquet mallets; no one stopped to admire the roses, and no one entered the cool, inviting tent. The whole place might have been dead, as far as human life was concerned; and although the smoke did ascend straight up from the kitchen chimney, a vagrant or a tramp might have been tempted to enter the house by the open hall door, were it not protected by the lazy dogs.
Up, however, by the hedge, at the other side of the kitchen garden, could be heard just then the crackle of a bough, the rustle of a dress, and a short, smothered, impatient exclamation. And had anyone peered very close they would have seen lying flat in the long grasses a tall, slender, half-grown girl, with dark eyes and rosy cheeks, and tangled curly rebellious locks. She had one arm raised, and was drawing herself deliberately an inch at a time along the smooth grass. Several birds had taken refuge in this fragrant hedge of hawthorn and wild roses. They were talking to one another, keeping up a perpetual chatter; but whenever the girl stirred a twig, or disturbed a branch, they stopped, looking around them in alarm, but none of them as yet seeing the prone, slim figure, which was, indeed, almost covered by the grasses. Perfect stillness once more—the birds resumed their conversation, and the girl made another slight movement forward. This time she disturbed no twig, and interrupted none of the bird gossip. She was near, very near, a tempting green bough, and on the bough sat two full-grown lovely thrushes; they were not singing, but were holding a very gentle and affectionate conversation, sitting close together, and looking at one another out of their bright eyes, and now and then kissing each other with that loving little peck which means a great deal in bird life.
The girl felt her heart beating with excitement—the birds were within a few inches of her—she could see their breasts heaving as they talked. Her own eyes were as bright as theirs with excitement; she got quite under them, made a sudden upward, dexterous movement, and laid a warm, detaining hand on each thrush. The deed was done—the little prisoners were secured. She gave a low laugh of ecstasy, and sitting upright in the long grass, began gently to fondle her prey, cooing as she talked to them, and trying to coax the terrified little prisoners to accept some kisses from her dainty red lips.
"Poll! Where's Polly Parrot?—Poll—Poll—Poll!" came a chorus of voices. "Poll, you're wanted at the house this minute. Where are you hiding?—You're wanted at home this minute! Polly Parrot—where are you, Polly?"
"Oh, bother!" exclaimed the girl under her breath; "then I must let you go, darlings, and I never, never had two of you in my arms at the same moment before. It's always so. I'm always interrupted when I'm enjoying ecstasy. Well, good-by, sweets. Be happy—bless you, darlings!"
She blew a kiss to the released and delighted thrushes, and stood upright, looking very lanky and cross and disreputable, with bits of grass and twig sticking in her hair, and messing and staining her faded, washed cotton frock.
"Now, what are you up to, you scamps?—can't you let a body be?"
Two little figures came tumbling down the gravel walk at the other side of the wire fence. They were hot and panting, and both destitute of hats.
"Polly, you're wanted at the house. Helen says so; there's a b-b-baby come. Polly Perkins—Poll Parrot, you'd better come home at once, there's a new b-b-baby just come!"
"A what?" said Polly. She vaulted the dyke, cleared the fence, and kneeling on the ground beside her two excited, panting little brothers, flung a hot, detaining arm round each.
"A baby! it isn't true, Bunny? it isn't true, Bob? A real live baby? Not a doll! a baby that will scream and wriggle up its face! But it can't be. Oh, heavenly! oh, delicious! But it can't be true, it can't! You're always making up stories, Bunny!"
"Not this time," said Bunny. "You tell her, Bob—she'll believe you. I heard it yelling—oh, didn't it yell, just! And Helen came, and said to send Polly in. Helen was crying, I don't know what about, and she said you were to go in at once. Why, what is the matter, Poll Parrot?"
"Nothing," said Polly, "only you might have told me about Helen crying before. Helen never cries unless there's something perfectly awful going to happen. Stay out in the garden, you two boys—make yourselves sick with gooseberries, if you like, only don't come near the house, and don't make the tiniest bit of noise. A new baby—and Helen crying! But mother—I'll find out what it means from mother!"
Polly had long legs, and they bore her quickly in a swift race or canter to the house. When she approached the porch the dogs all got up in a body to meet her; there were seven or eight dogs, and they surrounded her, impeding her progress.
"Not a bark out of one of you," she said, sternly, "lie down—go to sleep. If you even give a yelp I'll come out by and by and beat you. Oh, Alice, what is it? What's the matter?"
A maid servant was standing in the wide, square hall.
"What is it, Alice? What is wrong? There's a new baby—I'm delighted at that. But why is Helen crying, and—oh!—oh!—what does it mean—you are crying, too, Alice."
"It's—Miss Polly, I can't tell you," began the girl. She threw her apron over her head, and sobbed loudly. "We didn't know where you was, miss—it's, it's—We have been looking for you everywhere, miss. Why, Miss Polly, you're as white, as white—Don't take on now, miss, dear."
"You needn't say any more," gasped Polly, sinking down into a garden chair. "I'm not going to faint, or do anything silly. And I'm not going to cry either. Where's Helen? If there's anything bad she'll tell me. Oh, do stop making that horrid noise, Alice, you irritate me so dreadfully!"
Alice dashed out of the open door, and Polly heard her sobbing again, and talking frantically to the dogs. There was no other sound of any sort. The intense stillness of the house had a half-stunning, half-calming effect on the startled child. She rose, and walked slowly upstairs to the first landing.
"Polly," said her sister Helen, "you've come at last. Where were you hiding?—oh, poor Polly!"
"Where's mother?" said Polly. "I want her—let me go to her—let me go to her at once, Nell."
Helen's sobs came now, loud, deep, and distressful. There was a new baby—but no mother for Polly any more.
ALL ABOUT THE FAMILY.
Dr. Maybright had eight children, and the sweetest and most attractive wife of any man in the neighborhood. He had a considerable country practice, was popular among his patients, and he and his were adored by the villagers, for the Maybrights had lived in the neighborhood of the little village of Tyrsley Dale for many generations. Dr. Maybright's father had ministered to the temporal wants of the fathers and mothers of these very same villagers; and his father before him had also been in the profession, and had done his best for the inhabitants of Tyrsley Dale. It was little wonder, therefore, that the simple folks who lived in the little antiquated village on the borders of one of our great southern moors should have thought that to the Maybrights alone of the whole race of mankind had been given the art of healing.
For three or four generations the Maybright family had lived at Sleepy Hollow, which was the name of the square gray house, with its large vegetable garden, its sheltered clump of forest trees, and its cultivated flower and pleasure grounds. Here, in the old nursery, Polly had first opened her bright blue-black eyes; in this house Dr. Maybright's eight children had lived happily, and enjoyed all the sunshine of the happiest of happy childhoods to the full. They were all high-spirited and fearless; each child had a certain amount of individuality. Perhaps Polly was the naughtiest and the most peculiar; but her little spurt of insubordination speedily came to nothing, for mother, without ever being angry, or ever saying anything that could hurt Polly's sensitive feelings, had always, with firm and gentle hand, put an extinguisher on them.
Mother was really, then, the life of the house. She was young to have such tall slips of daughters, and such little wild pickles of sons; and she was so pretty and so merry, and in such ecstasies over a picnic, and so childishly exultant when Helen, or Polly, or Katie, won a prize or did anything the least bit extraordinary, that she was voted the best playfellow in the world.
Mother was never idle, and yet she was always at leisure, and so she managed to obtain the confidences of all the children; she thoroughly understood each individual character, and she led her small brood with silken reins.
Dr. Maybright was a great deal older than his wife. He was a tall man, still very erect in his figure, with square shoulders, and a keen, bright, kindly face. He had a large practice, extending over many miles, and although he had not the experience which life in a city would have given him, he was a very clever physician, and many of his brothers in the profession prophesied eminence for him whenever he chose to come forward and take it. Dr. Maybright was often absent from home all day long, sometimes also in the dead of night the children heard his carriage wheels as they bowled away on some errand of mercy. Polly always thought of her father as a sort of angel of healing, who came here, there, and everywhere, and took illness and death away with him.
"Father won't let Josie Wilson die," Polly used to say; or, "What bad toothache Peter Simpkins has to-day—but when father sees him he will be all right."
Polly had a great reverence for her father, although she loved her beautiful young mother best. The children never expected Dr. Maybright to join in their games, or to be sympathetic over their joys or their woes. They reverenced him much, they loved him well, but he was too busy and too great to be troubled by their little concerns. Of course, mother was different, for mother was part and parcel of their lives.
There were six tall, slim, rather straggling-looking Maybright girls—all overgrown, and long of limb, and short of frock. Then there came two podgy boys, greater pickles than the girls, more hopelessly disreputable, more defiant of all authority, except mother's. Polly was as bad as her brothers in this respect, but the other five girls were docility itself compared to these black lambs, whose proper names were Charley and John, but who never had been called anything, and never would be called anything in that select circle, but Bunny and Bob.
This was the family; the more refined neighbors rather dreaded them, and even the villagers spoke of most of them as "wondrous rampageous!" But Mrs. Maybright always smiled when unfriendly comments reached her ears.
"Wait and see," she would say; "just quietly wait and see—they are all, every one of them, the sweetest and most healthy-minded children in the world. Let them alone, and don't interfere with them. I should not like perfection, it would have nothing to grow to."
Mrs. Maybright taught the girls herself, and the boys had a rather frightened-looking nursery-governess, who often was seen to rush from the school-room dissolved in tears; but was generally overtaken half-way up the avenue by two small figures, nearly throttled by two pairs of repentant little arms, while eager lips vowed, declared, and vociferated, that they would never, never be naughty again—that they would never tease their own sweet, sweetest of Miss Wilsons any more.
Nor did they—until the next time.
Polly was fourteen on that hot July afternoon when she lay on the grass and skillfully captured the living thrushes, and held them to her smooth, glowing young cheeks. Her birthday had been over for a whole fortnight; it had been a day full of delight, love, and happiness, and mother had said a word or two to the exultant, radiant child at the close. Something about her putting away some of the childish things, and taking up the gentler and nobler ways of first young girlhood now. She thought in an almost undefined way of mother's words as she held the fluttering thrushes to her lips and kissed their downy breasts. Then had come the unlooked-for interruption. Polly's life seemed cloudless, and all of a sudden there appeared a speck in the firmament—a little cloud which grew rapidly, until the whole heavens were covered with it. Mother had gone away for ever, and there were now nine children in the old gray house.
"BE BRAVE, DEAR."
"Wasn't father with her?" Polly had said when she could find her voice late that evening. "Wasn't father there? I thought father—I always thought father could keep death away."
She was lying on her pretty white bed when she spoke. She had lain there now for a couple of days—not crying nor moaning, but very still, taking no notice of any one. She looked dull and heavy—her sisters thought her very ill.
Dr. Maybright said to Helen—
"You must be very careful of Polly, she has had a shock, and she may take some time recovering. I want you to nurse her yourself, Nell, and to keep the others from the room. For the present, at least, she must be kept absolutely quiet—the least excitement would be very bad for her."
"Polly never cries," said Helen, whose own blue eyes were swollen almost past recognition; "she never cries, she does not even moan. I think, father, what really upset Polly so was when she heard that you—you were there. Polly thinks, she always did think that you could keep death away."
Here poor Helen burst into fresh sobs herself.
"I think," she added, choking as she spoke, "that was what quite broke Polly down—losing mother, and losing faith in your power at the same time."
"I am glad you told me this, Helen," said Dr. Maybright, quietly. "This alters the case. In a measure I can now set Polly's heart at rest. I will see her presently."
"Presently" did not mean that day, nor the next, nor the next, but one beautiful summer's evening just when the sun was setting, and just when its long low western rays were streaming into the lattice-window of the pretty little bower bedroom where Polly lay on her white bed, Dr. Maybright opened the door and came in. He was a very tall man, and he had to stoop as he passed under the low, old-fashioned doorway, and as he walked across the room to Polly's bedside the rays of the setting sun fell on his face, and he looked more like a beautiful healing presence than ever to the child. She was lying on her back, with her eyes very wide open; her face, which had been bright and round and rosy, had grown pale and small, and her tearless eyes had a pathetic expression. She started up when she saw her father come in, gave a glad little cry, and then, remembering something, hid her face in her hands with a moan.
Dr. Maybright sat down in the chair which Helen had occupied the greater part of the day. He did not take any notice of Polly's moan, but sat quite still, looking out at the beautiful, glowing July sunset. Wondering at his stillness, Polly presently dropped her hands from her face, and looked round at him. Her lips began to quiver, and her eyes to fill.
"If I were you, Polly," said the doctor, in his most matter-of-fact and professional manner, "I would get up and come down to tea. You are not ill, you know. Trouble, even great trouble, is not illness. By staying here in your room you are adding a little to the burden of all the others. That is not necessary, and it is the last thing your mother would wish."
"Is it?" said Polly. The tears were now brimming over in her eyes, but she crushed back her emotion. "I didn't want to get up," she said, "or to do anything right any more. She doesn't know—she doesn't hear—she doesn't care."
"Hush, Polly—she both knows and cares. She would be much better pleased if you came down to tea to-night. I want you, and so does Helen, and so do the other girls and the little boys. See, I will stand by the window and wait, if you dress yourself very quickly."
"Give me my pocket-handkerchief," said Polly. She dashed it to her eyes. No more tears flowed, and by the time the doctor reached the window he heard a bump on the floor; there was a hasty scrambling into clothes, and in an incredibly short time an untidy, haggard-looking, but now wide-awake, Polly stood by the doctor's side.
"That is right," he said, giving her one of his quick, rare smiles.
He took no notice of the tossed hair, nor the stained, crumpled, cotton frock.
"Take my arm, Polly," he said, almost cheerfully. And they went down together to the old parlor where mother would never again preside over the tea-tray.
It was more than a week since Mrs. Maybright had died, and the others were accustomed to Helen's taking her place, but the scene was new to the poor, sore-hearted child who now come in. Dr. Maybright felt her faltering steps, and knew what her sudden pause on the threshold meant.
"Be brave, dear," he whispered. "You will make it easier for me."
After that Polly would have fought with dragons rather than shed a ghost of a tear. She slipped into a seat by her father, and crumbled her bread-and-butter, and gulped down some weak tea, taking care to avoid any one's eyes, and feeling her own cheeks growing redder and redder.
In mother's time Dr. Maybright had seldom spoken. On many occasions he did not even put in an appearance at the family tea, for mother herself and the group of girls kept up such a chatter that, as he said, his voice would not be heard; now, on the contrary, he talked more than any one, telling the children one or two most interesting stories on natural history. Polly was devoted to natural history, and in spite of herself she suspended her tea-cup in the air while she listened.
"It is almost impossible, I know," concluded Dr. Maybright as he rose from the table. "But it can be done. Oh, yes, boys, I don't want either of you to try it, but still it can be done. If the hand is very steady, and poised in a particular way, then the bird can be caught, but you must know how to hold him. Yes—what is the matter, Polly?"
"I did it!" burst from Polly, "I caught two of them—darlings—I was kissing them when—oh, father!"
Polly's face was crimson. All the others were staring at her.
"I want you, my dear," said her father, suddenly and tenderly. "Come with me."
Again he drew her hand protectingly through his arm, and led her out of the room.
"You were a very good, brave child at tea-time," he said. "But I particularly wish you to cry. Tears are natural, and you will feel much better if you have a good cry. Come upstairs now to Nurse and baby."
"Oh, no, I can't—I really can't see baby!"
"Why not?—She is a dear little child, and when your mother went away she left her to you all, to take care of, and cherish and love. I think she thought specially of you, Polly, for you always have been specially fond of little children. Come to the nursery now with me. I want you to take care of baby for an hour, while Nurse is at her supper."
Polly did not say another word. The doctor and she went together into the old nursery, and a moment or two afterwards she found herself sitting in Nurse's little straw arm-chair, holding a tiny red mite of a baby on her knee. Mother was gone, and this—this was left in her place! Oh, what did God mean? thought the woe-begone, broken-hearted child.
The doctor did not leave the room. He was looking through some books, a pile of old MS. books in one corner by the window, and had apparently forgotten all about Polly and the baby. She held the wee bundle without clasping it to her, or bestowing upon it any endearing or comforting little touch, and as she looked the tears which had frozen round her heart flowed faster and faster, dropping on the baby's dress, and even splashing on her tiny face.
Baby did not like this treatment, and began to expostulate in a fretful, complaining way. Instantly Polly's motherly instincts awoke; she wiped her own tears from the baby's face, and raising it in her arms, pressed its little soft velvet cheek to her own. As she did so, a thrill of warm comfort stole into her heart.
"Polly," said her father, coming suddenly up to her, "please take good care of baby till Nurse returns. I must go out now, I have some patients to see, but I am going to prescribe a special little supper for you, which Helen is to see you eat before you go to bed. Good-night, dear. Please ask Nurse, too, if you can do anything in the morning to help her with baby. Good-night, good-night, both of you. Why the little creature is quite taking to you, Polly!"
Dr. Maybright was about to leave the room when Polly called him back.
"Father, I must say one thing. I have been in a dreadful, dreadful dream since mother died. The most dreadful part of my dream, the blackest part, was about you."
"Yes, Polly, yes, dear."
"You were there, father, and you let her die."
Dr. Maybright put his arm round the trembling child, and drew her and the baby too close to him.
"Not willingly," he said, in a voice which Polly had never heard him use before. "Not willingly, my child. It was with anguish I let your mother go away. But Polly, there was another physician there, greater than I."
"Another?" said Polly.
"Yes, another—and He prescribed Rest, for evermore."
All her life afterwards Polly remembered these words of her father's. They calmed her great sorrow, and in many ways left her a different child.
QUITE A NEW SORT OF SCHEME.
On a certain sunny morning in August, four or five weeks after Mrs. Maybright's death, six girls stood round Dr. Maybright in his study. They were all dressed in deep mourning, but it was badly made and unbecoming, and one and all looked untidy, and a little run to seed. Their ages were as varied as their faces. Helen, aged sixteen, had a slightly plump figure, a calm, smooth, oval face, and pretty gentle blue eyes. Her hair was fair and wavy; she was the tidiest of the group, and notwithstanding the heavy make of her ugly frock, had a very sweet and womanly expression. Polly, all angles and awkwardness, came next in years; she was tall and very slim. Her face was small, her hair nearly black and very untidy, and her big, dark, restless eyes reflected each emotion of her mind.
Polly was lolling against the mantelpiece, and restlessly changing her position from one leg to another; Katie, aged eleven, was something in Helen's style; then came the twins, Dolly and Mabel, and then a rather pale child, with a somewhat queer expression, commonly known in the family as "Firefly." Her real name was Lucy, but no one ever dreamt of calling her by this gentle title. "Firefly" was almost always in some sort of disgrace, and scarcely knew what it was not to live in a state of perpetual mental hot water. It was privately whispered in the family circle that Polly encouraged her in her naughtiness. Whether that was the case or not, these two had a kind of quaint, elfish friendship between them, Firefly in her heart of hearts worshipping Polly, and obeying her slightest nod or wish.
"I have sent for you, girls," said the Doctor, looking round tenderly at his six motherless daughters, "to say that I have talked over matters with Helen, and for the present at least, I am willing to give her plan a trial. I think she is right when she tells me that if it turns out successful nothing would please your mother more. It entirely depends on yourselves whether it succeeds or fails. If you are agreeable to try it, you can come to me to-morrow at this hour and tell me so. Now good-by, my dears. Helen will explain everything to you. Helen, I shall not be in for early dinner. Good-by, good-by to you all."
The Doctor nodded, looked half-abstractedly at the upturned young faces, pushed his way through the little group, and taking up a parcel of papers and a surgical case which lay near, went straight to his carriage, which was heard immediately afterwards to bowl quickly down the avenue.
The moment he was gone Helen was surrounded by a clamorous group.
"What is it, Nell? oh, do tell us—tell us quickly," said they, one and all.
"I thought Helen looked very important these last few days," said Dolly. "Do tell us what it is, Nell, and what the plan is we are all to agree to."
"It sounds rather nice to be asked to agree to things," said Firefly. "What's the matter, Poll? You look grumpy."
"I think Helen may be allowed to speak," said Polly. "Go on, Nell, out with the budget of news. And you young ones, you had better not interrupt her, for if you do, I'll pay you out by-and-by. Now, Nell. Speak, Nell."
"It's this," said Helen.
She seated herself on the window-ledge, and Polly stood, tall and defiant, at her back. Firefly dropped on her knees in front, and the others lolled about anyhow.
"It's this," she said. "Father would like to carry on our education as much in mother's way as possible. And he says that he is willing, for a time at least, to do without having a resident elderly governess to live with us."
"Oh, good gracious!" exclaimed Polly, "was there ever such an idea thought of?"
"She'd have spectacles," said Dolly.
"And a hooked nose," remarked Katie.
"And she'd be sure to squint, and have false teeth, and I'd hate her," snapped Firefly, putting on her most vindictive face.
"Well, it's what's generally done," said Helen, in her grave, sad, steady, young voice. "You remember the Brewsters when they—they had their great sorrow—how an elderly governess came, and Aunt Maria Cameron has written to father about two already. She speaks of them as treasures; father showed me the letters. He says he supposes it is quite the usual thing, and he asked me what I'd like. Poor father, you see he must be out all day with the sick folks."
"Of course," murmured Polly. "Well, what did you answer him about the old horrors, Nell?"
"One seemed rather nice," said Helen. "She was about forty-five, and had thin grayish hair. Aunt Maria sent her photograph, and said that she was a treasure, and that father ought not to lose an hour in securing her. Her name was Miss Jenkins."
"Jenkins or Jones, I'd have given her sore bones," spitefully improvised Firefly.
"Well, she's not to come," continued Helen, "at least, not at present. For I have persuaded father to let us try the other plan. He says all our relations will be angry with him; of course, he is not likely to care for that. This is what we are to try, girls, if you are agreeable. Father is going to get the very best daily governess from Nettleship to come here every morning. She will stay until after early dinner, and then George will drive her back to town in the pony trap. And then Mr. Masters is to come twice a week, as usual, about our music, and Mr. Danvers for drawing. And Miss Wilson is to stay here most of the day to look after Bunny and Bob. That is a much better arrangement than having a resident governess, is it not?"
"Yes," said three or four voices, but Polly was silent, and Firefly, eagerly watching her face, closed her own resolute lips.
"That is part of father's plan," continued Helen. "But the other, and more important part is this. I am to undertake the housekeeping. Father says he would like Polly to help me a little, but the burden and responsibility of the whole thing rests on me. And also, girls, father says that there must be some one in absolute authority. There must be some one who can settle disputes, and keep things in order, and so he says that unless you are all willing to do what I ask you to do, the scheme must still fall through, and we must be like the Brewsters or any other unhappy girls whose mothers are no longer with them, and have our resident governess."
"I know you won't like to obey me," continued Helen, looking anxiously round, "but I don't think I'll be hard on you. No, I am sure I shall not be hard on any of you."
"That remains to be proved," said Polly. "I don't think I like that plan. I won't give any answer at present—I'll think about it. Come along, Fly," she nodded to her younger sister, and then, lifting the heavy bottom sash of the window where Helen had been sitting, stepped lightly out, followed by the obedient Firefly.
"I don't want to obey Nell," said the little sister, clasping two of Polly's fingers with her thin, small hand. "If it was you, Poll Parrot, it would be a different thing, but I don't want to obey Nell. I don't think it's fair; she's only my sister, like the rest of them. There's nothing said in the Catechism about obeying sisters. It's only fathers and mothers, and spiritual pastors and masters."
"And all those put in authority over you," proceeded Polly, shaking her fingers free, and facing round on Firefly, in a way which caused that young person to back several inches. "If Helen once gets the authority the Catechism is on her side, not on yours."
"But I needn't promise, need I?" pouted Firefly. "If it was you, it would be different. I always did what you wanted me to do, Polly Perkins."
"Of course you did," responded Polly, in a most contemptuous voice. "Will a duck swim? I led you into mischief—of course you followed. Well, Fly, it rests with yourself. Don't obey our dear, good, gentle Nelly, and you'll have Miss Jenkins here. Won't it be fun to see her squinting at you over her spectacles when she returns your spelling-lessons. Bread and water will be your principal diet most of the week. Well, good-by now; I'm off to baby."
Polly took to her heels, and Firefly stood for a moment or two looking utterly miserable and irresolute on the wide gravel walk in the center of the flower-garden. She felt very much inclined to stamp her feet and to screw up her thin little face into contortions of rage. Even very little girls, however, won't go into paroxysms of anger when there is no one there to see. Firefly's heart was very sore, for Polly, her idol, had spoken to her almost roughly.
"I wish mother wasn't in heaven," she murmured in a grieved little voice, and then she turned and walked back to the house. The nearer she approached the study window the faster grew her footsteps. At last, like a little torrent, she vaulted back into the room, and flung her arms noisily round Helen's neck.
"I'll obey you, darling Nell," she said. "I'd much rather have you than Miss Jenkins."
And then she sobbed aloud, and really shook herself, for she felt still so angry with Polly.
"That's a good little Fly," said Helen, kissing her affectionately in return, and putting her arm round her waist, so as to establish her comfortably on her knee. The other girls were all lying about in different easy attitudes, and Firefly joined in the general talk, and found herself much comforted.
"Fly caved in, didn't she?" said Polly to her eldest sister that night.
"Yes, poor little mite, she did, in a touching way," said Helen; "but she seemed in trouble about something. You know how reserved she is about her feelings, but when she sat on my knee she quite sobbed."
"I was rather brutal to her," said Polly, in a nonchalant tone, flinging up the sash of the bedroom window as she spoke, and indulging in a careless whistle.
It was bed-time, but the girls were tempted by the moonlight night to sit up and look out at the still, sweet beauty, and chatter together.
"How could you be unkind to her?" said Helen, in a voice of dismay. "Polly, dear, do shut that window again, or you will have a sore throat. How could you be unkind to poor little Fly, Poll, when she is so devoted to you?"
"The very reason," said Polly. "She'd never have gone over to you if I hadn't. I saw rebellion in that young 'un's eye—that was why I called her out. I was determined to nip it in the bud."
"But you rebelled yourself?"
"Yes, and I mean to go on rebelling. I am not Fly."
"Well, Polly," said Helen, suppressing a heavy sigh on her own account; "you know I don't want you a bit to obey me. I am not a mistressing sort of girl, and I like to consult you about things, and I want us both to feel more or less as equals. Still father says there are quite two years between us, and that the scheme cannot be worked at all unless some one is distinctly at the head. He particularly spoke of you, Polly, and said that if you would not agree we must go back to the idea of Miss Jenkins, or that he will let this house for a time, and send us all to school."
"A worse horror than the other," said Polly. "I wouldn't be a school-girl for all you could give me! Why, the robin's nest might be discovered by some one else, and my grubs and chrysalides would come to perfection without me. No, no; rather than that—can't we effect a compromise, Nell?"
"What is it?" asked Helen. "You know I am willing to agree to anything. It is father."
"Oh, yes; poor Nell, you're the meekest and mildest of mortals. Now, look here, wouldn't this be fun?"
Polly's black eyes began to dance.
"You know how fond I always was of housekeeping. Let me housekeep every second week. Give me the money and let me buy every single thing and pay for it, and don't interfere with me whatever I do. I'll promise to be as good as gold always, and obey you in every single thing, if only I have this safety-valve. Let me expend myself upon the housekeeping, and I'll be as good, better than gold. I'll help you, and be your right hand, Nell; and I'll obey you in the most public way before all the other girls, and as to Fly, see if I don't keep her in hand. What do you think of this plan, Nell? I, with my safety-valve, the comfort of your life, a sort of general to keep your forces in order."
"But you really can't housekeep, Polly. Of course I'd like to please you, and father said himself you were to help me in the house. But to manage everything—why, it frightens me, and I am two years older."
"But you have so very little spirit, darling. Now it doesn't frighten me a bit, and that's why I'm so certain I shall succeed splendidly. Look here, Nell, let me speak to father, myself; if he says 'yes,' you won't object, will you?"
"Of course not," said Helen.
"You are a darling—I'll soon bring father round. Now, shall we go to bed?—I am so sleepy."
The next morning at breakfast Polly electrified her brothers and sisters by the very meek way in which she appealed to Helen on all occasions.
"Do you think, Nell, that I ought to have any more of this marmalade on fresh bread? I ate half a pot yesterday on three or four slices of hot bread from the oven, and felt quite a dizzy stupid feeling in my head afterwards."
"Of course, how could you expect it to agree with you, Polly?" said Helen, looking up innocently from her place at the tea-tray.
"Had better have a little of this stale bread-and-butter then, dear?" proceeded Polly in a would-be anxious tone.
"Yes, if you will, dear. But you never like stale bread-and-butter."
"I'll eat it if you wish me to, Helen," answered Polly, in a very meek, good little voice.
The two boys began to chuckle, and even Dr. Maybright looked at his second daughter in a puzzled, abstracted way. Helen, too, colored slightly, and wondered what Polly meant. But the young lady herself munched her stale bread with the most immovable of faces, and even held up the slice for Helen to scrutinize, with the gentle, good little remark—"Have I put too much butter on it, Nell? It isn't right to waste nice good butter, is it?"
"Oh, Polly, how dreadful you are?" said Fly.
"What do you mean?" said Polly, fiercely.
She dropped her meek manners, gave one quick glare at the small speaker, and then half turning her back on her, said in the gentlest of voices, "What would you like me to do this morning, Helen? Shall I look over my history lesson for an hour, and then practise scales on the piano?"
"You may do just as you please, as far as I am concerned," replied Helen, who felt that this sort of obedience was far worse for the others than open rebellion. "I thought you wanted to see father, Polly. He has just gone into his study, and perhaps he will give you ten minutes, if you go to him at once."
This speech of Helen's caused Polly to forget her role of the meek, obedient martyr. Her brow cleared.
"Thank you for reminding me, Nell," she said, in her natural voice, and for a moment later she was knocking at the Doctor's study door.
"Come in," he said. And when the untidy head and somewhat neglected person of his second daughter appeared, Dr. Maybright walked towards her.
"I am going out, Polly, do you want me?" he said.
"Yes, it won't take a minute," said Polly, eagerly. "May I housekeep every second week instead of Nell? Will you give me the money instead of her, and let me pay for everything, and buy the food. I am awfully interested in eggs and butter, and I'll give you splendid puddings and cakes. Please say yes, father—Nell is quite willing, if you are."
"How old are you, Polly?" said Dr. Maybright.
He put his hand under Polly's chin and raised her childish face to scrutinize it closely.
"What matter about my age," she replied; "I'm fourteen in body—I'm twenty in mind—and as to housekeeping, I'm thirty, if not forty."
"That head looks very like thirty, if not forty," responded the Doctor significantly. "And that dress," glancing at where the hem was torn, and where the body gaped open for want of sufficient hooks, "looks just the costume I should recommend for the matron of a large establishment. Do you know what it means to housekeep for this family, Polly?"
"Buy the bread and butter, and the meat, and the poultry, and the tea, and the sugar, and the citron, and raisins, and allspice, and nutmegs, and currants, and flour, and brick-bat, and hearthstone, and—and——"
Dr. Maybright put his fingers to his ears. "Spare me any more," said he, "I never ask for items. There are in this house, Polly, nine children, myself, and four servants. That makes in all fourteen people. These people have to be fed and clothed, and some of them have to be paid wages too; they have to be warmed, they have to be kept clean, in short, all their comforts of body have to be attended to; one of them requires one thing, one quite another. For instance, the dinner which would be admirably suited to you would kill baby, and might not be best for Firefly, who is not strong, and has to be dieted in a particular way. I make it a rule that servants' wages and all articles consumed in the house are paid for weekly. Whoever housekeeps for me has to undertake all this, and has to make a certain sum of money cover a certain expenditure. Now do you think, Polly—do you honestly think—that you, an ignorant little girl of fourteen, a very untidy and childish little girl, can undertake this onerous post? I ask you to answer me quite honestly—if you undertake it, are you in the least likely to succeed?"
"Oh, father, I know you mean to crush me when you speak like that; but you know you told Helen that you would like her to try to manage the housekeeping."
"I did—and, as I know you are fond of domestic things, I meant you to help her a little. Helen is two years older than you, and—not the least like you, Polly."
Polly tossed her head.
"I know that," she said. "Helen takes twice as long learning her lessons. Try my French beside hers, father; or my German, or my music."
"Or your forbearance—or your neatness," added the Doctor.
Here he sighed deeply.
"I miss your mother, Polly," he said. "And poor, poor child! so do you. There, I can't waste another minute of my time with you now. Come to my study this evening at nine, and we will discuss the matter further."
Polly spent some hours of that day in a somewhat mysterious occupation. Instead of helping, as she had done lately, in quite an efficient way, with the baby, for she was a very bright child, and could be most charming and attractive to the smallest living creature when she chose, she left nurse and the little brown-eyed baby to their own devices, and took up a foraging expedition through the house. She called it her raid, and Polly's raid proved extremely disturbing to the domestic economy of the household. For instance, when Susan, the very neat housemaid, had put all the bedrooms in perfect order, and was going to her own room to change her dress and make herself tidy, it was very annoying to hear Polly, in a peremptory tone, desiring her to give her the keys of the linen-press.
"For," said that young lady, "I'm going to look through the towels this morning, Susan, to see which of them want darning, and you had better stay with me, to take away those that have thin places in them."
"Oh, dear me, Miss Polly," said Susan, rather pertly, "the towels is seen to in the proper rotation. You needn't be a fretting your head about 'em, miss. This ain't the morning for the linen-press, miss. It's done at its proper time and hour."
"Give me the key at once, Susan, and don't answer," said Polly. "There, hold your apron—I'll throw the towels in. What a lot—I don't believe we want half as many. When I take the reins of office next week, I'll put away quite half of these towels. There can't be waste going on in the house—I won't have it, not when I housekeep, at any rate. Susan, wasn't that a little round speck of a hole in that towel? Ah, I thought so. You put it aside, Susan, you'll have to darn it this afternoon. Now then, let me see, let me see."
Polly worked vigorously through the towels, holding them up to the light to discover their thin places, pinching them in parts, and feeling their texture between her finger and thumb. In the end she pronounced about a dozen unworthy of domestic service, and Susan was desired to spend her afternoon in repairing them.
"I can't, then, Miss Polly," said the much injured housemaid. "It ain't neither the day nor the hour, and I haven't got one scrap of proper darning thread left."
"I'll go to the village, then, and get some," said Polly. "It's only a mile away. Things can't be neglected—it isn't right. Take the towels, Susan, and let me find them mended to-morrow morning;" and the young lady tripped off with a very bright color in her cheeks, and the key of the linen-press in her pocket.
Her next visit was to the kitchen regions.
"Oh, Mrs. Power," she said to the cook, "I've come to see the stores. It isn't right that they shouldn't be looked into, is it, in case of anything falling short. Fancy if you were run out of pearl barley, Mrs. Power, or allspice, or nutmegs, or mace. Oh, dear, it makes me quite shiver to think of it! What a mess you would be in, if you hadn't all your ingredients handy, in case you were making a plum-cake, or some of those dear little tea-cakes, or a custard, or something of that sort. Now, if you'll just give me the keys, we'll pay a visit to the store-room, and see what is likely to be required. I have my tablet here, and I can write the order as I look through."
Mrs. Power was a red-faced and not a very good-humored woman. She was, however, an excellent cook and a careful, prudent servant. Mrs. Maybright had found her, notwithstanding her very irascible temper, a great comfort, for she was thoroughly honest and conscientious, but even from her late mistress Mrs. Power would never brook much interference; it is therefore little to be wondered at that Polly's voluminous speech was not very well received.
Mrs. Power's broad back was to the young lady, as she danced gleefully into the kitchen, and it remained toward her, with one ear just slightly turned in her direction, all the time she was speaking.
Mrs. Power was busy at the moment removing the fat from a large vessel full of cold soup. She has some pepper and salt, and nutmegs and other flavoring ingredients on the table beside her, and when Polly's speech came to a conclusion she took up the pepper canister and certainly flavored the soup with a very severe dose.
"If I was you, I'd get out of the hot kitchen, child—I'm busy, and not attending to a word you're talking about."
No answer could have been more exasperating to Polly. She, too, had her temper, and had no idea of being put down by twenty Mrs. Powers.
"Take care, you're spoiling the soup," she said. "That's twice too much pepper—and oh, what a lot of salt! Don't you know, Mrs. Power, that it's very wicked to waste good food in that way—it is, really, perhaps you did not think of it in that light, but it is. I'm afraid you can't ever have attended any cookery classes, Mrs. Power, or you'd know better than to put all that pepper into that much soup. Why it ought to be—it ought to be—let me see, I think it's the tenth of an ounce to half a gallon of soup. I'm not quite sure, but I'll look up the cookery lectures and let you know. Now, where's the key of the store-room—we'd better set to work for the morning is going on, and I have a great deal on my hands. Where's the key of the store-room, Mrs. Power?"
"There's only one key that I know much about at the present moment," replied the exasperated cook, "and that's the key of the kitchen-door; come, child—I'm going to put you on the other side of it;" and so saying, before Polly was in the least aware of her intention, she was caught up in Mrs. Power's stalwart arms, and placed on the flags outside the kitchen, while the door was boldly locked in her face.
This was really a check, almost a checkmate, and for a time Polly quite shook with fury, but after a little she sufficiently recovered herself to reflect that the reins of authority had not yet been absolutely placed in her hands, and it might be wisest for her to keep this defeat to herself.
"Poor old Power! you won't be here long when I'm housekeeper," reflected Polly. "It would not be right—you're not at all a good servant. Why, I know twice as much already as you do."
She went slowly upstairs, and going to the school-room, where the girls were all busying themselves in different fashions, sat down by her own special desk, and made herself very busy dividing a long old-fashioned rosewood box into several compartments by means of stout cardboard divisions. She was really a clever little maid in her own way, and the box when finished looked quite neat. Each division was labeled, and Polly's cheeks glowed as she surveyed her handiwork.
"What a very queer box," said Dolly, coming forward. "What are you so long about, Poll Parrot? And, oh, what red cheeks!"
"Never you mind," said Polly, shutting up her box. "It's finished now, and quite ready for father to see to-night. I'm going to become a very important personage, Miss Doll—so you'd better begin to treat me with respect. Oh, dear, where's the cookery book? Helen, do you know where the "Lectures on Elementary Cookery" is? Just fancy, Nell, cook doesn't know how much pepper should go to a gallon of soup! Did you ever hear of such shameful ignorance?"
"Why, you surely have not been speaking to her on the subject?" said Helen, who was busily engaged darning Bunny's socks; she raised her head and looked at Polly in some surprise as she spoke.
"Oh, have I not, though?" Polly's charming, merry face twinkled all over.
"I saw Susan crying just now," interposed Mabel. "She said Polly had been—why, what is the matter, Poll?"
"Nothing," said Poll, "only if I were you, Mabel, I wouldn't tell tales out of school. I'm going to be a person of importance, so if you're wise, all of you, you'll keep at my blind side. Oh dear! where is that cookery book? Girls, you may each tell me what puddings you like best, and what cake, and what dish for breakfast, and——"
But here the dinner gong put an end to a subject of much interest.
In the evening Polly had her interview with her father. Dr. Maybright had gone through a long and fatiguing day; some anxious cases caused him disquiet, and his recent sorrow lay heavily against his heart. How was the father of seven daughters, and two very scampish little sons, to bring them up alone and unaided? How was a man's own heart to do without the sympathy to which it had turned, the love which had strengthened, warmed, and sustained it? Dr. Maybright was standing by the window, looking out at the familiar garden, which showed shadowy and indistinct in the growing dusk, when Polly crept softly into the room, and, going up to his side, laid her pretty dimpled hand on his arm.
"Now, father," she said, eagerly, "about the housekeeping? I'm all prepared—shall we go into the subject now?"
Dr. Maybright sighed, and with an effort roused himself out of a reverie which was becoming very painful.
"My little girl," he said, pushing back the tumbled hair from Polly's sunshiny face. Then he added, with a sudden change of manner, "Oh, what a goose you are, Polly—you know as much about housekeeping as I do, and that is nothing at all."
"I wouldn't make bold assertions," replied Polly, saucily—"I wouldn't really, father dear; I couldn't cure a sick person, of course not, but I could make a very nice cake for one."
"Well, let's go into the matter," said the Doctor moving to his study table. "I have a quarter of an hour to give you, my dear, then I want to go into the village to see Mrs. Judson before she settles for the night; she has a nasty kind of low fever about her, and her husband is anxious, so I promised to look in. By the way, Polly, don't any of you go nearer the Judsons' house until I give you leave; walk at the other side of the village, if you must go there at all. Now, my dear, about this housekeeping. Are you seriously resolved to force your attentions upon us for a week? We shall certainly all be most uncomfortable, and severe attacks of indigestion will probably be the result. Is your heart set on this, Polly, child? For, if so—well, your mother never thwarted you, did she?"
"No, father, never—but don't talk of mother, for I don't think I can bear it. When I was with mother somehow or other, I don't know why, I, never wished for anything she did not like."
"Just so, my dear child. Turn up the lamp, if you please, Polly—sit there, will you—I want to see your face. Now I will reply to the first part of your last remark. You asked me not to speak of your mother, my dear; I certainly will mention her name to her children. She has gone away, but she is still one with us. Why should our dearest household word be buried? Why should not her influence reach you and Helen and Dolly from where she now is? She is above—she has gone into the higher life, but she can lead you up. You understand me, Polly. Thoughts of your mother must be your best, your noblest thoughts from this out."
"Yes, father, yes," said Polly. Her lips were trembling, her eyes were brimful, she clasped and unclasped her hands with painful tension.
Dr. Maybright bent forward and kissed her on her forehead.
"Your mother once said to me," he continued, in a lighter tone, "Polly is the most peculiar and difficult to manage of all my children. She has a vein of obstinacy in her which no persuasion will overcome. It can only be reached by the lessons which experience teaches. If possible, and where it is not absolutely wrong, I always give Polly her own way. She is a truthful child, and when her eyes are opened she seldom asks to repeat the experiment."
"Mother was thinking of the hive of honey," said Polly, gravely. "When I worried her dreadfully she let me go and take some honey away. I thought I could manage the bees just as cleverly as Hungerford does, but I got nervous just at the end, and I was stung in four places. I never told any one about the stings, only mother found out."
"You did not fetch any more honey from that hive, eh, Polly?" asked the Doctor.
"No, father. And then there was another time—and oh, yes, many other times. But I did not know mother was just trying to teach me, when she seemed so kind and sympathizing, and used to say in that voice of hers—you remember mother's cheerful voice, father?—'Well, Polly, it is a difficult thing, but do your best.'"
"All right, child," said the Doctor, "I perceive that your mother's plan was a wise one. Tell me quickly what ideas you have with regard to keeping this establishment together, for it is almost time for me to run away to Mrs. Judson. I allow eight pounds a week for all household expenses, servants' wages, coal, light, food, medicine. I shall not allow you to begin with so much responsibility, but for a week you may provide our table."
"And see after the servants, please, father?" interrupted Polly, in an eager voice.
"Well, I suppose so, just for one week, that is, after Helen has had her turn. Your mother always managed, with the help of the vegetables and fruit from the garden, to bring the mere table expenses into four pounds a week; but she was a most excellent manager."
"Oh, father, I can easily do it too. Why it's a lot of money! four pounds—eighty shillings! I shouldn't be a bit surprised if I did it for less."
"Remember, Polly, I allow no stinting; we must have a plentiful table. No stinting, and no running in debt. Those are the absolute conditions, otherwise I do not trust you with a penny."
"I'll keep them, father—never fear! Oh, how delighted I am! I know you'll be pleased; I know what you'll say by-and-by. I'm certain I won't fail, certain. I always loved cooking and housekeeping. Fancy making pie-crust myself, and cakes, and custards! Mrs. Power is rather cross, but she'll have to let me make what things I choose when I'm housekeeper, won't she, father?"
"Manage it your own way, dear, I neither interfere nor wish to interfere. Oh, what a mess we shall be in! But thank heaven it is only for a week. My dear child, I allow you to have your way, but I own it is with trepidation. Now I must really go to Mrs. Judson."
"But one moment, please, father. I have not shown you my plan. You think badly of me now, but you won't, indeed you won't presently. I am all system, I assure you. I see my way so clearly. I'll retrench without being mean, and I'll economize without being stingy. Don't I use fine words, father? That's because I understand the subject so thoroughly."
"Quite so, Polly. Now I must be going. Good-night, my dear."
"But my plan—you must stay to hear it. Do you see this box? It has little divisions. I popped them all in before dinner to-day. There is a lock and key to the box, and the lock is a strong one."
The Doctor began to get into his overcoat.
"Look, father, dear, please look. Each little division is marked with a name. This one is Groceries, this one is Butcher, this is Milk, butter, and eggs, this is Baker, this is Cheesemonger, and this is Sundries—oh yes, and laundress, I must screw in a division for laundress somehow. Now, father, this is my delightful plan. When you give me my four pounds—my eighty shillings—I'll get it all changed into silver, and I'll divide it into equal portions, and drop so much into the grocery department, so much into the butcher's, so much into the baker's. Don't you see how simple it will be?"
"Very, my dear—the game of chess is nothing to it. Good-night, Polly. I sincerely hope no serious results will accrue from these efforts on my part to teach you experience."
The Doctor walked quickly down the avenue.
"I'm quite resolved," he said to himself, "to bring them all up as much as possible on their mother's plan, but if Polly requires many such lessons as I am forced to give her to-night, there is nothing for it but to send her to school. For really such an experience as we are about to go through at her hands is enough to endanger health, to say nothing of peace and domestic quiet. The fact is, I really am a much worried man. It's no joke bringing up seven motherless girls, each of them with characters; the boys are a simple matter—they have school before them, and a career of some sort, but the girls—it really is an awful responsibility. Even the baby has a strong individuality of her own—I see it already in her brown eyes—bless her, she has got her mother's eyes. But my queer, wild, clever Polly—what a week we shall have with you presently! Now, who is that crying and sobbing in the dark?"
The Doctor swooped suddenly down on a shadowy object, which lay prone under an arbutus shrub. "My dear little Firefly, what is the matter? You ought to be in bed ages ago—out here in the damp and cold, and such deep-drawn sobs! What has nurse been about? This is really extremely careless."
"It wasn't nurse's fault," sobbed Firefly, nestling her head into her father's cheek. "I ran away from her. I hided from her on purpose."
"Then you were the naughty one. What is the matter, dear? Why do you make things worse for me and for us all just now?"
Firefly's head sank still lower. Her hot little cheek pressed her father's with an acute longing for sympathy. Instinct told him of the child's need. He walked down the avenue, holding her closely.
"Wasn't you going the other way, father?" asked Firefly, squeezing her arms tight around his neck.
"No matter, I must see you home first. Now what were those sobs about? And why did you hide yourself from nurse?"
"'Cause I wanted to be downstairs, to listen to the grown-ups."
"The grown-ups? My dear, who are they?"
"Oh, Nell, and Poll Parrot, and Katie; I don't mind about Nell and Polly, but it isn't fair that Katie should be made a grown-up—and she is—she is, really, father. She is down in the school-room so important, and just like a regular grown-up, so I couldn't stand it."
"I see. You wanted to be a grown-up too—you are seven years old, are you not?"
"I'm more. I'm seven and a half—Katie is only eleven."
"Quite so! Katie is young compared to you, isn't she, Firefly. Still, I don't see my way. You wished to join the grown-ups, but I found you sobbing on the damp grass under one of the shrubs near the avenue. Is it really under a damp arbutus shrub that the grown-ups intend to take counsel?"
"Oh no, father, no—" here the sobs began again. "They were horrid, oh they were horrid. They locked me out—I banged against the door, but they wouldn't open. It was then I came up here. I wouldn't have minded if it hadn't been for Katie."
"I see, my child. Well, run to bed now, and leave the matter in father's hands. Ask nurse to give you a hot drink, and not to scold, for father knows about it."
"Darling father—oh, how good you are! Don't I love you! Just another kiss—what a good father you are!"
Firefly hugged the tall doctor ecstatically. He saw her disappear into the house, and once more pursued his way down the avenue.
"Good!" he echoed to himself. "Never did a more harassed man walk. How am I to manage those girls?"
SHOULD THE STRANGERS COME?
Helen and Polly were seated together in the pleasant morning-room. Helen occupied her mother's chair, her feet were on a high footstool, and by her side, on a small round table, stood a large basket filled with a heterogeneous collection of odd socks and stockings, odd gloves, pieces of lace and embroidery, some wool, a number of knitting needles, in short, a confused medley of useful but run-to-seed-looking articles which the young housekeeper was endeavoring to reduce out of chaos into order.
"Oh, Polly, how you have tangled up all this wool; and where's the fellow of this gray glove? And—Polly, Polly—here's the handkerchief you had such a search for last week. Now, how often do you intend me to put this basket in order for you?"
"Once a week, dear, if not oftener," answered Polly, in suave tones. "Please don't speak for a moment or two, Nell. I'm so much interested in this new recipe for pie-crust. You melt equal portions of lard and butter in so much boiling water—that's according to the size of the pie; then you mix it into the flour, kneading it very well—and—and—and—" Polly's voice dropped to a kind of buzz, her head sank lower over the large cookery-book which she was studying; her elbows were on the table, her short curling hair fell over her eyes, and a dimpled hand firmly pressed each cheek.
Helen sighed slightly, and returned with a little gesture of resignation to the disentangling of Polly's work-basket. As she did so she seated herself more firmly in her mother's arm-chair. Her little figure looked slight in its deep and ample dimensions, and her smooth fair face was slightly puckered with anxiety.
"Polly," she said, suddenly; "Polly, leave that book alone. There's more in the world than housekeeping and pie-crust. Do you know that I have discovered something, and I think, I really do think, that we ought to go on with it. It was mother's plan, and father will always agree to anything she wished."
Polly shut up Mrs. Beaton's cookery-book with a bang, rose from her seat at the table, and opening the window sat down where the wind could ruffle her hair and cool her hot cheeks.
"This is Friday," she said, "and my duties begin on Monday. Helen, pie-crust is not unimportant when success or failure hangs upon it; puddings may become vital, Helen, and, as to cheesecakes, I would stake everything I possess in the world on the manner in which father munches my first cheesecake. Well, dear, never mind; I'll try and turn my distracted thoughts in your direction for a bit. What's the discovery?"
"Only," said Helen, "that I think I know what makes father look so gray, and why he has a stoop, and why his eyes seem so sunken. Of course there is the loss of our mother, but that is not the only trouble. I think he has another, and I think also, Polly, that he had this other trouble before mother died, and that she helped him to bear it, and made plans to lighten it for him. You remember what one of her plans was, and how we weren't any of us too well pleased. But I have been thinking lately, since I began to guess father's trouble, that we ought to carry it out just the same as if our mother was with us."
"Yes," said Polly. "You have a very exciting way of putting things, Nell, winding one up and up, and not letting in the least little morsel of light. What is father's trouble, and what was the plan? I can't remember any plan, and I only know about father that he's the noblest of all noble men, and that he bears mother's loss—well, as nobody else would have borne it. What other trouble has our dear father, Nell? God wouldn't be so cruel as to give him another trouble."
"God is never cruel," said Helen, a beautiful, steadfast light shining in her eyes. "I couldn't let go the faith that God is always good. But father—oh, Polly, Polly, I am dreadfully afraid that father is going to lose his sight."
"What?" said Polly. "What? father lose his sight? No, I'm not going to listen to you, Nell. You needn't talk like that. It's perfectly horrid of you. I'll go away at once and ask him. Father! Why, his eyes are as bright as possible. I'll go this minute and ask him."
"No, don't do that, Polly. I would never have spoken if I wasn't really sure, and I don't think it would be right to ask him, or to speak about it, until he tells us about it himself. But I began to guess it a little bit lately, when I saw how anxious mother seemed. For she was anxious, although she was the brightest of all bright people. And after her death father said I was to look through some of her letters; and I found one or two which told me that what I suspected was the case, and father may—indeed, he probably will—become quite blind, by-and-by. That was—that was—What's the matter, Polly?"
"Nothing," said Polly. "You needn't go on—you needn't say any more. It's a horrid world, nothing is worth living for; pie-crust, nor housekeeping, nor nothing. I hate the world, and every one in it, and I hate you most of all, Nell, for your horrid news. Father blind! No, I won't believe it; it's all a lie."
"Poor Polly," said Helen. "Don't believe it, dear, I wish I didn't. I think I know a little bit how you feel. I'm not so hot and hasty and passionate as you, and oh, I'm not half, nor a quarter, so clever, but still, I do know how you feel; I—Polly, you startle me."
"Only you don't hate me at this moment," said Polly. "And I—don't I hate you, just! There, you can say anything after that. I know I'm a wretch—I know I'm hopeless. Even mother would say I was hopeless if she saw me now, hating you, the kindest and best of sisters. But I do, yes, I do, most heartily. So you see you aren't like me, Helen."
"I certainly never hated any one," said Helen. "But you are excited, Polly, and this news is a shock to you. We won't talk about it one way or other, now, and we'll try as far as possible not to think of it, except in so far as it ought to make us anxious to carry out mother's plan."
Polly had crouched back away from the window, her little figure all huddled up, her cheeks with carnation spots on them, and her eyes, brimful of the tears which she struggled not to shed, were partly hidden by the folds of the heavy curtain which half-enveloped her.
"You were going to say something else dreadfully unpleasant," she remarked. "Well, have it out. Nothing can hurt me very much just now."
"It's about the strangers," said Helen. "The strangers who were to come in October. You surely can't have forgotten them, Polly."
Like magic the thunder-cloud departed from Polly's face. The tears dried in her bright eyes, and the curtain no longer enveloped her slight, young figure.
"Why, of course," she said. "The strangers, how could I have forgotten! How curious we were about them. We didn't know their names. Nothing, nothing at all—except that there were two, and that they were coming from Australia. I always thought of them as Paul and Virginia. Dear, dear, dear, I shall have more housekeeping than ever on my shoulders with them about the place."
"They were coming in October," said Helen, quietly. "Everything was arranged, although so little was known. They were coming in a sailing vessel, and the voyage was to be a long one, and mother, herself, was going to meet them. Mother often said that they would arrive about the second week in October."
"In three weeks from now?" said Polly, "We are well on in September, now. I can't imagine how we came to forget Paul and Virginia. Why, of course, poor children, they must be quite anxious to get to us. I wonder if I'd be a good person to go and meet them. You are so shy with strangers, you know, Nell, and I'm not. Mother used to say I didn't know what mauvaise honte meant. I don't say that I like meeting them, poor things, but I'll do it, if it's necessary. Still, Helen, I cannot make out what special plan there is in the strangers coming. Nor what it has to do with father, with that horrid piece of news you told me a few minutes ago."
"It has a good deal to say to it, if you will only listen," said Helen. "I have discovered by mother's letters that the father of the strangers is to pay to our father L400 a year as long as his children live here. They were to be taught, and everything done for them, and the strangers' father was to send over a check for L100 for them every quarter. Now, Polly, listen. Our father is not poor, but neither is he rich, and if—if what we fear is going to happen, he won't earn nearly so much money in his profession. So it seems a great pity he should lose this chance of earning L400 a year."
"But nobody wants him to lose it," said Polly. "Paul and Virginia will be here in three weeks, and then the pay will begin. L400 a year—let me see, that's just about eight pounds a week, that's what father says he spends on the house, that's a lot to spend, I could do it for much less. But no matter. What are you puckering your brows for, Helen? Of course the strangers are coming."
"Father said they were not to come," replied Helen. "He told me so some weeks ago. When they get to the docks he himself is going to meet them, and he will take them to another home which he has been inquiring about. He says that we can't have them here now."
"But we must have them here," said Polly. "What nonsense! We must both of us speak to our father at once."
"I have been thinking it over," said Helen, in her gentle voice, "and I do really feel that it is a pity to lose this chance of helping father and lightening his cares. You see, Polly, it depends on us. Father would do it if he could trust us, you and me, I mean."
"Well, so he can trust us," replied Polly, glibly. "Everything will be all right. There's no occasion to make a fuss, or to be frightened. We have got to be firm, and rather old for our years, and if either of us puts down her foot she has got to keep it down."
"I don't know that at all," said Helen. "Mother sometimes said it was wise to yield. Oh, Polly, I don't feel at all wise enough for all that is laid on me. We have to be examples in everything. I do want to help father, but it would be worse to promise to help him and then to fail."
"I'm not the least afraid," said Polly. "The strangers must come, and father's purse must be filled in that jolly manner. I don't believe the story about his eyes, Nell, but it will do him good to feel that he has got a couple of steady girls like us to see to him. Now I'm arranging a list of puddings for next week, so you had better not talk any more. We'll speak to father about Paul and Virginia after dinner."
Even the wisest men know very little of household management, and never did an excellent and well-intentioned individual put, to use a well-known phrase, his foot more completely into it than Dr. Maybright when he allowed Polly to learn experience by taking the reins of household management for a week.
Except in matters that related to his own profession, Dr. Maybright was apt to be slightly absent-minded; here he was always keenly alive. When visiting a patient not a symptom escaped him, not a flicker of timid eyelids passed unnoticed, not a passing shade of color on the invalid's countenance but called for his acute observation. In household matters, however, he was apt to overlook trifles, and very often completely to forget what seemed to his family important arrangements. He was the kind of man who was sure to be very much beloved at home, for he was neither fretful nor fussy, but took large views of all things. Such people are appreciated, and if his children thought him the best of all men, his servants also spoke of him as the most perfect of masters.
"You might put anything before him," Mrs. Power would aver. "Bless his 'art, he wouldn't see, nor he wouldn't scold. Ef it were rinsings of the tea-pot he would drink it instead of soup; and I say, and always will say, that ef a cook don't jelly the soup for the like of a gentleman like the doctor what have no mean ways and no fusses, she ain't fit to call herself a cook."
So just because they loved him, Dr. Maybright's servants kept his table fairly well, and his house tolerably clean, and the domestic machinery went on wheels, not exactly oiled, but with no serious clog to their progress.
These things of course happened since Mrs. Maybright's death. In her day this gentlest and firmest of mistresses, this most tactful of women, kept all things in their proper place, and her servants obeyed her with both will and cheerfulness.
On the Saturday before Polly's novitiate poor Dr. Maybright's troubles began. He had completely forgotten all about his promise to Polly, and was surprised when the little girl skipped into his study after breakfast, with her black frock put on more neatly than usual, her hair well brushed and pushed off her face, and a wonderful brown holland apron enveloping her from her throat to her ankles. The apron had several pockets, and certainly gave Polly a quaint and original appearance.
"Here I am, father," she said. "I have come for the money, please."
"The—the what, my dear?"
Dr. Maybright put up his eye-glass, and surveyed the little figure critically.
"Are these pockets for your school-books?" he said. "It is not a bad idea; only don't lose them, Polly. I don't like untidy books scattered here and there."
Polly took the opportunity to dart a quick, anxious glance into her father's eyes—they were bright, dark, clear. Of course Helen's horrid story was untrue. Her spirits rose, she gave a little skip, and clasped her hands on the Doctor's arm.
"These are housekeeping pockets, father," she said. "Nothing at all to say to books. I'm domestic, not intellectual; my housekeeping begins on Monday, you know, and I've come for the eighty shillings now. Can you give it to me in silver, not in gold, for I want to divide it, and pop it into the little box with divisions at once?"
"Bless me," said the Doctor, "I'd forgotten—I did not know that indigestion week was so near. Well, here you are, Polly, two pounds in gold and two pounds in silver. I can't manage more than two sovereigns' worth of silver, I fear. Now my love, as you are strong, be merciful—give us only small doses of poison at each meal. I beseech of you, Polly, be temperate in your zeal."
"You laugh at me," said Polly, "Well, never mind. I'm too happy to care. I don't expect you'll talk about poisoning when you have eaten my cheesecakes. And father, dear father, you will let Paul and Virginia come? Nell and I meant to speak to you yesterday about them, but you were out all day. With me to housekeep, and Nell to look after everybody, you needn't have the smallest fear about Paul and Virginia; they can come and they can line your pockets, can't they?"
"My dear child, I have not an idea what you are talking about. Who are Paul and Virginia—have I not a large enough family without taking in the inhabitants of a desert island? There, I can't wait to hear explanations now; that is my patients' bell—run away, my dear, run away."
Dr. Maybright always saw his poorer patients gratis on Saturday morning from ten to twelve. This part of his work pleased him, for he was the sort of man who thought that the affectionate and grateful glance in the eye, and the squeeze of the hand, and the "God bless you, doctor," paid in many cases better than the guinea's worth. He had an interesting case this morning, and again Polly and her housekeeping slipped from his mind. He was surprised, therefore, in the interim between the departure of one patient and the arrival of another, to hear a somewhat tremulous tap at his study door, and on his saying "Come in," to see the pretty but decidedly ruffled face of his housemaid Alice presenting herself.
"Ef you please, Doctor, I won't keep you a minute, but I thought I'd ask you myself ef it's your wish as Miss Polly should go and give orders that on Monday morning I'm to turn the linen-press out from top to bottom, and to do it first of all before the rooms is put straight. And if I'm to unpick the blue muslin curtains, and take them down from where they was hung by my late blessed mistress's orders, in the spare room, and to fit them into the primrose room over the porch—for she says there's a Miss Virginy and a Master Paul coming, and the primrose room with the blue curtains is for one of them, she says. And I want to know from you, please, Doctor, if Miss Polly is to mistress it over me? And to take away the keys of the linen-press from me, and to follow me round, and to upset all my work, what I never stood, nor would stand. I want to know if it's your wish, Doctor?"
"The fact is, Alice," began the Doctor—he put his hand to his brow, and a dim look came over his eyes—"the fact is—ah, that is my patients' bell, I must ask you to go, Alice, and to—to moderate your feelings. I have been anxious to give Miss Polly a lesson in experience, and it is only for a week. You will oblige me very much, Alice, by helping me in this matter."
The Doctor walked to the door as he spoke, and opened it courteously.
"Come in, Johnson," he said, to a ruddy-faced farmer, who was accompanied by a shy boy with a swelled face. "Come in; glad to see you, my friend. Is Tommy's toothache better?"
Alice said afterwards that she never felt smaller in her life than when Dr. Maybright opened the study door to show her out.
"Ef I'd been a queen he couldn't have done it more elegant," she remarked. "Eh, but he's a blessed man, and one would put up with two Miss Pollys for the sake of serving him."
The Doctor having conquered Alice, again forgot his second daughter's vagaries, but a much sterner and more formidable interview was in store for him; it was one thing to conquer Alice, who was impressionable, and had a soft heart, and another to encounter the stony visage and rather awful presence of Mrs. Power.
"It's to give notice I've come, Dr. Maybright," she said, dropping a curtsey, and twisting a corner of her large white apron round with one formidable red hand. "It's to give notice. This day month, please, Doctor, and, though I says it as shouldn't, you won't get no one else to jelly your soups, nor feather your potatoes, nor puff your pastry, as Jane Power has done. But there's limits, Dr. Maybright; and I has come to give you notice, though out of no disrespect to you, sir."
"Then why do you do it, Mrs. Power?" said the Doctor. "You are an honest and conscientious servant, I know that from your late mistress's testimony. You cook very good dinners too, and you make suitable puddings for the children, and pastry not too rich. Why do you want to leave? I don't like change; and, if it is a question of wages, perhaps I may be able to meet you."
"I'm obligated to you, Doctor; but it ain't that. I has my twenty-two pounds paid regular, and all found. I ain't grumbling on that score, and Jane Power was never havaricious nor grasping. I'm obligated too by what you says with respect to the pastry; but, Doctor, it ain't in mortal woman to stand a chit of a child being put over her. So I'm going this day month; and, with your leave, I'll turn the key in the kitchen-door next week, or else I'll forfeit my wage and go at once."